Power of Public-Sector Unions Erodes
News & Trends
Michigan’s public-employee unions were relieved when an appeals court ruled in August that the state Legislature cannot require members to pay 3
percent of their pay into a retirement-healthcare fund.
But that ruling does nothing to stem the tide of bills sweeping
through Republican-controlled state legislatures that target
Faced with dire budget deficits, lawmakers say, union
members must share the financial burden and make sacrifices.
However, many of the bills now in the pipeline go further and
rescind collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
“There are a lot of states at different stages of legislating
away collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions,”
says Rebecca Givan, assistant professor at the Industrial Labor
Relations School at Cornell University in Ithaca, N. Y.
Some states, such as Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, North
Carolina and Virginia, are banning all collective bargaining for
public employees. Others are limiting which groups can bargain
or what they can bargain about.
For example, Wisconsin has narrowly defined collective
bargaining so union members cannot ask for a pay increase
greater than the rate of inflation.
The Ohio Legislature passed a law in March that severely
limits public workers’ collective-bargaining rights and
substantially increases members’ pension and healthcare
contributions. Opponents have obtained signatures to put the
issue before the voters in November.
In New Jersey, the Republican-controlled Legislature in
June overhauled the pension and health-benefit system, which
has a $53.9 billion deficit, by substantially increasing pension
contributions and health-insurance premiums, and eliminating the
Unions have filed suit, charging that the Legislature
unconstitutionally took away contractual benefits.
“It’s hard to generalize,” says Marion Crain, law professor at
Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. “Most of the
state governments are initiating these kinds of moves out of the
desire to cut their budgets.”
Labor compensation and benefits are some of the “largest
[budget] items. It’s the logical place for them to look. It’s totally
predictable,” Crain says.
That said, some of the laws now being passed “seem to be
after more ... undermining or doing away with unions,” she says.
“The larger trends are pretty clear. Governments continue in
belt-tightening and some are taking advantage” of budget deficits
to limit unions.
There are exceptions, but it appears to have “played out” as
Republican versus Democrat, Crain says. “We’ll see more efforts.
It’ll heat up as the presidential election approaches.”
In Michigan, the Court of Appeals agreed with a lower
court that the state Legislature circumvented the Civil Service
Commission and violated the state constitution when it created
a public-employee retirement-healthcare fund that required a
“The people can and should expect shared sacrifice; however,
it cannot come at the expense of constitutional nullification, and
the Legislature cannot expect to balance the budget on the backs
of state workers,” writes Judge Karen Fort Hood.
As for the nationwide trend, says Robert Boonin, an attorney
with Butzel Long in Ann Arbor, Mich., lawmakers in most states
are “trying to level the playing field at the bargaining table. It was
unduly skewed in one way. The union had too much power.”
In a ruling that criticized the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission’s “sue first,
ask questions later”
strategy, U.S. District
Judge Sean Cox ordered
the agency to reimburse
Cintas Corp. more than
$2.6 million in attorneys’
fees and legal costs after
the company prevailed in
an 11-year-old employment-discrimination case.
Cintas, a Cincinnati-based
uniform supplier, had been
fighting a gender-bias lawsuit
brought by a group of female
plaintiffs. In 2005, the
EEOC intervened in
the case, which was
later merged with
another suit against
Cintas. Cox had
earlier ruled against
the plaintiffs, who are
In his ruling, Cox chastised
the EEOC for failing to
properly investigate the
allegations or interview
individual complainants until
well after it had filed its own
complaint against Cintas.
The agency also refused
to identify the complainants
until after it had filed its own
complaint and it failed to
engage in any conciliation
measures with Cintas before
filing its complaint, as
required by law.
Earlier this year, another
federal court in Michigan
ordered the EEOC to pay
$750,000 in legal costs to
Peoplemark, a staffing
company based in Kentucky,
for failing to properly
investigate claims that the
company’s policy of not hiring
applicants with criminal
records had an adverse impact
on minority applicants.
operations and information- management professor Katherine Milkman argues that, in some situations, the solution is as simple as a
design change to form-letter
Milkman and co-authors
John Beshears of Stanford
University, James J. Choi
of Yale University and
David Laibson and Brigitte
C. Madrian of Harvard
University found participation
in workplace flu-vaccination
clinics went up among
employees who were sent a
flier that prompted them to fill
in blank spaces on the handout
with a specific date and time
when they planned to come in
to get a shot.
“Forgetfulness is a big
part of why people don’t take
preventative health actions;
they mean to, but when it
comes down to it, they don’t
remember,” Milkman says.
“One solution is to help people
make a concrete plan.”
What is unusual in this
case was that the employees
In work, as well as in life, forgetfulness often impedes our
best intentions. And in
both settings, a failure
to remember can have
Forgetting to schedule
an annual check-up at the
doctor’s office could lead to
a serious medical problem
going undiscovered. The cost
of neglecting regular meetings
with a mentor could lead to
the loss of a valuable contact.
And a missed deadline on one
component of a project can
upend the schedule of the
Is there any way to get
past what would appear to
be a common human foible?
In a recent paper, Using
Prompts to Enhance Influenza
Vaccination Rates, Wharton
weren’t being held to that
plan by a doctor or a boss.
According to Milkman, past
research shows people like to
be thought of as dependable,
and keeping commitments is
part of that.